The Russian poetic tradition is grand, extensive, quirky, and at times, bizarre. Russia’s Silver Age – despite being denoted as “Silver” in contrast to its Golden Age predecessor – was a profoundly creative epoch in the country’s poetic history. In the wake of drastic ideological spurts and cataclysmic social changes, a series of reactionary poetic movements emerged.
At the forefront were the Futurists and Symbolists, within which various circles situated themselves. One of the most unconventional was Zaum, a group whose work was characterized by linguistic deconstruction. Unlike the beloved poets of the Golden Age, the Zaum poets did not see language as a carrier of emotion, but rather, as a medium for experimentation – engaging in sound symbolism and language creation. Their very name, “zaum,” involves wordplay: “za” translates as “beyond,” or “behind,” and “um” to “mind.” In its entirety, the word has been translated to “transreason,” “transration” and “beyonsense” by different scholars.
The Zaum poets ardently battled for the disruption of immediate language association within existing languages, which they saw as “binding,” and sought to create “a language that does not have any definite meaning, a transrational language” that “allows for fuller expression.” In his “Declaration of Transrational Language” (1921), Zaum figurehead Aleksei Kruchenykh posited that Zaum “can provide a universal poetic language, born organically, and not artificially, like Esperanto.” To fuel such an endeavor, the Zaum poets drew inspiration from lost primeval Slavic languages. Despite being likened to Dadaists for their disruptive mode of thinking, they lacked the self-irony of Dadaism and their intentions to recover aboriginal tongues were entirely genuine.
In 2016, the Getty Research Institute published curator Nancy Perloff’s collection of reproductions of the hand-lithographed Zaum books. Titled “Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art,” the book is a unique blend of the visual, verbal, and sonic – combining the works of painters and poets including Natalia Goncharova, Velimir Khlebnikov, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. The collection also features Kruchenykh’s "Dyr bul shchyl," the language of which he declared to be “more Russian national, than all of Pushkin's poetry.”
To accompany the printed collection, the Getty Research Institute created an online interactive version that features transliteration, translations, and audio recordings – allowing viewers to immerse themselves in Zaum’s unique interplay of word-image-sound.